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230 posts categorized "Decoration"

25 June 2019

Toads and ermine (and other coats of arms)

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Heraldry, or the study and design of armorial bearings, sometimes has a dusty reputation. This is quite undeserved: heraldic manuscripts can give us a fascinating insight into the way in which history and legend were interwoven in the medieval mind. In the mid-15th century, Richard Strangways of the Inner Temple wrote a treatise on the rules of heraldry that he exemplified with ‘imaginary arms’: coats of arms that were attributed to the protagonists of medieval legends and heroes of romances, and, retroactively, kings who had lived before the beginning of the age of heraldry in the 12th century. His treatise survives uniquely  in Harley MS 2259.

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Richard Strangways’s heraldic treatise (1455): Harley MS 2259, f. 11r

Strangways included in his treatise the attributed arms of Brutus of Troy, a legendary figure who — according to the anonymous 9th-century Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae — was a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and the founder and first king of Britain. He also painted the attributed arms of William the Conqueror. Like the near-contemporary Men of Arms in Harley MS 4205, Strangways claimed that the Duke of Normandy bore a shield with silver and blue bars when he conquered England in 1066.

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The arms of Brutus [left] and William the Conqueror [right]: Harley MS 2259, ff. 179v, 95v

Describing the arms of the kings of France, Strangways followed a popular medieval legend: the pre-Christian kings of the Franks would have borne a pagan shield with three black toads (resembling the attributed arms of Satan), which the Franks continued to use until ‘Kyng Lowes’ [Louis the Pious?] prayed for a new charge and an angel gave him fleurs-de-lis to replace the toads.

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The pagan arms of the Frankish kings: Harley MS 2259, f. 163v

Arthurian literature was evidently another important source for Strangways. He formally described — or to put it in heraldic terms ‘blazons’ — the arms of the legendary King Arthur as a ‘gules three crowns in pale’. This means: a red shield with three golden crowns ordered vertically.

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A blazon of King Arthur’s arms: Harley MS 2259, f. 183r

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The arms of King Arthur (England, 4th quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

Strangways also showed the arms of Sir Geraint, who Welsh romances held to be one of Arthur’s most valiant knights, and those of Sir Gawain, one of the most renowned Knights of the Round Table. As the 14th-century Middle English romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Cotton MS Nero A X has it, Gawain bore a red shield with a five-pointed golden star. But Strangways gave him a green shield with a golden bar that is covered with an ‘ermine’ — a heraldic pattern based on the winter coat of the stoat. He stated that adding this ‘fur’ was necessary because Gawain was born in bastardy, a claim corroborated by medieval works such as De Ortu Waluuanii Nepotis Arturi (The Rise of Sir Gawain, Nephew of Arthur). To put it in Strangways’s own words, ‘the rule in heraldry is that if he is born of a noble lady in bastardy and bears her arms he shall bear them with such a fur’ (‘the law of armys ys yf he come of a gret lady in bastardy and ber her armys he shall ber hem with such a furcot’).

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The arms of Geraint [left] and of Gawain [right]: Harley MS 2259, ff. 134r, 73r

Harley MS 2259 also features the arms of Sir John Mandeville, the supposed author of a fictional travel memoir describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa and Asia. Mandeville’s Travels survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, but none of the illustrated versions (such as Harley MS 3954 and Add MS 24189) show Mandeville bearing arms. His shield was once displayed in the church of Guillemins near Liège (in modern-day Belgium), where Mandeville was supposedly buried, but the church was destroyed during the French Revolution. Strangways’s treatise includes one of only two extant illustrations of Mandeville's arms, and the only medieval one.

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The arms of John Mandeville [‘maximus peregrinus’]: Harley MS 2259, f. 90r

Strangways made special mention of the attributed arms of Prester John. According to popular legend, he was the founder and ruler of a Christian kingdom in the Far East. A letter purportedly written by him to the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Komnenos, describes a kingdom with mythical animals, monstrous races and marvels such as a fountain of youth. The letter survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, the oldest dating back to the 12th century (for example, Harley MS 3099). Prester John’s arms are exceptional because they display the Crucifixion of Christ, imagery that was reserved for only a few eminent bishops and religious institutions.

Strangways emphasized his heraldic charge’s rarity by explaining the distinction between a crucifix and a cross, which was commonly used on coats of arms: ‘It is called a crucifix because God is nailed upon it, because if it is so that God isn’t nailed upon it in person, then it should just be called a cross’ (‘hyt ys callyd a crucyfix be cause god ys naylyd and crucyfyd up on yt. For yf  yt were so þat god were nat naylyd on yt in figure than yt shuld be callyd but a crosse’).

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A blazon of the arms of Prester John: Harley MS 2259, f. 147r

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The arms of Prester John (northern France, 15th century): Egerton MS 3030, f. 9v

Strangways’s treatise is just one of several late medieval English heraldic works to feature attributed arms. These ‘imaginary arms’ reflect the importance placed on symbolism by the late medieval gentry and aristocracy, and a desire to associate themselves with important figures in medieval history and legend.

We are currently creating new online records for manuscripts in the Harley collection (one of the foundation collections of the British Library). You can read more about this project, which includes Harley MS 2259 (containing Strangways's treatise), in our blogpost Cataloguing the Harley manuscripts.

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

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Visitors to the British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, will no doubt stop to admire a copy of Aristotle’s works on natural sciences, probably made for a medieval student at Oxford University. The careful layout and the perfectly formed gothic handwriting in different styles is impressive, but what will they make of the images on the page?

The page on display shows a decorated letter containing, logically enough, a seated philosopher examining a book and pointing to the heavens. But in the margin there is a man pushing a naked figure in a wheelbarrow, similar to the figures sometimes used to illustrate the fool of Psalm 52, “The fool (insipiens) said in his heart: There is no God” (e.g. in the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925). What does this scene have to do with Aristotle?

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A philosopher and a man pushing a fool in a wheelbarrow, Aristotle’s Libri naturales, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3487, f. 22v  

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were translated into Latin and completely transformed ideas on philosophy and natural science in Western Europe. A number of manuscripts containing works by Aristotle or attributed to him have been digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 and are referenced in this article https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/medieval-science-and-mathematics.

Despite Church disapproval of the study of ‘pagan’ writings that contradicted its teachings, and the subsequent banning of Aristotle’s works in Paris, they soon became key texts in medieval universities. This book contains a collection of the required reading on the Oxford curriculum, complete with glosses and commentaries in the margins and between the lines of text to provide detailed explanations. But it is the decoration that makes this manuscript unique: it is exceptional for a volume of Aristotle’s works to be so elaborately illustrated at this time. There are 29 historiated initials, one at the beginning of each book or chapter, each representing the text that is to follow. Because there was no earlier tradition of illustrating Aristotle’s texts, the artists had to be innovative. Sometimes they adapted subjects from other genres, and sometimes they invented new ones.

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Books being burned before a king, a friar and others, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 4r

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the initials is the first in the manuscript, on the opening page of Physics. The decorated letter on this page depicts a small child throwing books onto a fire before a king, a friar and other figures.  Scholars have suggested that this scene represents the burning of books of Aristotle’s works in Paris in 1210, while the friar represents the role played by the Franciscans and other preaching orders in teaching Aristotle.

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A windmill and a bird, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 161r

The most well-known image in this manuscript is one of the earliest depictions of a windmill. This is found at the beginning of the book Meteorologica, which includes early accounts of weather phenomena. Here a man is adjusting the direction of a windmill to catch the wind. Beneath, a bird holds a twig in its beak, perhaps referring to the way that birds use the wind in flight.

Now, let’s return to the illustration of a philosopher star-gazing and a fool riding in a wheelbarrow on the page on display in the exhibition. It appears at the beginning of book IV of Physics, which studies the Heavens. A possible interpretation for this image is that it juxtaposes knowledge and foolishness. The seated philosopher inside the letter is looking up at the stars, but above him the fool could be a reminder that too much knowledge leads to madness. But as with many of the marginal images in the manuscript, there are no definite explanations.

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A coat of arms, possibly of a son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford, with one man blowing a horn and another eating, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 216r

This manuscript is an example of the skills that came together in 13th-century Oxford to produce a work that is both educational and entertaining. The thoughtful explanations and interpretations of the text, the remarkable planning and layout, and the innovative decoration and illustration, make it easy and delightful to use. The owner must have been one lucky student, and indeed a likely candidate would be the son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford (fl. c. 1256), member of one of the richest and most powerful families in England at the time.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 February 2019

Sutton Hoo and Anglo-Saxon East Anglia

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The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, is open until 19 February 2019. Alongside some of the most significant manuscripts from our own collections, and important loans from other institutions, are a number of outstanding archaeological finds. Among them are artefacts from Sutton Hoo.

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The Sutton Hoo belt buckle: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.1

Sutton Hoo is one of the most famous excavations in British archaeological history. In 1939, the owner of the site, Edith Pretty, asked her gardener to investigate the curious mounds on her land. After some initial digging, it was thought prudent to involve the experts at the British Museum, and over the coming weeks they revealed a ship burial and many precious objects. We are delighted that a selection of these treasures are on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

The Sutton Hoo treasures included weapons, such as a sword, a set of spears and a famous helmet, and items associated with Anglo-Saxon dress, such as the great buckle and two shoulder-clasps. In our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are displayed the sword-belt, complete with scabbard slider and strap distributor, and the gold belt buckle. These stunning objects have been generously loaned to the British Library by the British Museum.

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The scabbard slider and strap distributor from the Sutton Hoo sword-belt: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.10

The Sutton Hoo burial site lies within the territory of the former Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. Some people have argued that the man in the main ship-burial was the 7th-century King Rædwald, who is described in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. According to Bede, Rædwald was a pagan when he came to the throne, before converting to Christianity later in his reign. Rædwald does not appear to have entirely given up his pagan ways. In Bede's words, 'he seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods who he had previously served; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another altar on which to offer victims of the devils'.

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Bede describes Rædwald’s pagan practices in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

In our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, these treasures from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial are displayed alongside other archaeological discoveries found in the kingdom of East Anglia or the neighbouring kingdom of Kent. Many of these items are on loan from Norwich Castle Museum.

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Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2017,519.6

On display in the exhibition is a gold and garnet pendant, found in the grave of a woman at Winfarthing, south Norfolk. This elaborately decorated pendant rivals the jewellery from Sutton Hoo. The woman who was buried with it seems to have been a Christian, as she was also buried with another gold pendant that features a cruciform design.

The decoration on the Sutton Hoo gold buckle features an intricate web of thirteen snakes, predatory birds and long-limbed beasts, delineated by alternating gold and niello backgrounds that give their bodies contrasting texture. The exhibition provides an unrivalled opportunity to compare their design with the decoration of contemporary manuscripts. For example, very similar insular interlace can be found on the pages of late 7th-century gospel books, such as the Book of Durrow, on loan to the exhibition from Trinity College Dublin.

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The Book of Durrow: Dublin, Trinity College, MS 57, f. 85v

The sources and inspiration for the artwork in the Book of Durrow stretch from Ireland to Anglo-Saxon England and from Pictland to the Mediterranean. The items found at Sutton Hoo in turn show connections between East Anglia and other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Francia and Byzantium. These treasures bear witness not only to Anglo-Saxon ambition and workmanship, but they also demonstrate their relationships with the wider world.

The spectacular treasures from Sutton Hoo are on show in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library until 19 February. Many session have already sold out, so to avoid disappointment we suggest that you book your tickets in advance

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 January 2019

The Southwark Hours: a new acquisition

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The British Library is pleased to announce its recent acquisition of an illuminated medieval manuscript, the Southwark Hours, now Add MS 89309. It is now fully digitised and is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery for all to admire.

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Christ in Majesty with the Evangelist symbols: Add MS 89309, f. 94r

The manuscript is a Book of Hours, made in Paris in the last quarter of the 14th century. Books of Hours contained sets of prayers for reading at different ‘hours’ of the day and night. Spanning the divides of gender, age and status, they were the most popular books owned by laypeople in the late Middle Ages. The Southwark Hours is a particularly fine example. Its pages are festooned with ivy-leaf borders glittering with gold, and its major prayers are headed with delicate illuminations attributed to the ‘Ravenelle Master’. For its patron, most likely a French noblewoman, it would have been an invaluable aid to piety as well as a beautiful book.

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The Entombment: Add MS 89309, f. 215v

We can catch a glimpse of this mystery patroness within the manuscript’s pages. The prayer for the final hour of the day (Compline) in the set of prayers known as the Hours of the Passion is accompanied by an image of the Entombment of Christ. In the image, Christ’s dead body is laid out on his tomb by two pall-bearers, while the Virgin Mary, St John, St Mary Magdalene and two other holy women gather in mourning. The woman who kneels praying in the foreground is almost certainly a portrait of the manuscript’s original owner. Her insertion into the Passion scene evokes the intimate and emotional experience that she hoped to achieve through her prayers.

The head and shoulders of the same woman also appear within a decorated initial at the opening of the Penitential Psalms, beneath a miniature of Christ in Majesty (f. 94r), pictured above. She gazes at the words from Psalm 6: ‘Domine ne in furore tuo arguas me neque in ira tua corripias me’ (O Lord, rebuke me not in thy indignation, nor chastise me in thy wrath), while the illuminated figure of Christ looks down at her.

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The Annunciation: Add MS 89309, f. 20r

The most impressive page in a Book of Hours is usually the opening prayer for the first hour of the day (Matins) in the Hours of the Virgin — a series of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary that were central to any Book of Hours. True to tradition, the Southwark Hours opens this prayer with an exquisite illumination of the Annunciation.

It is apparent that before the arrival of the angel, the Virgin Mary had been reading studiously. Looking closely, we can read her open book, ‘Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium’ (Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son; Isaiah 7:14), and so discover that she is studying the Old Testament text that prophesies about her own important role in salvation history. She kneels on a sumptuous blue cloth patterned with golden stars, recalling her epithet as ‘Stella Maris’ (star of the sea). The vase of lilies in front of her symbolises virginity.

In contrast with the Virgin Mary’s serene stillness, the angel Gabriel makes a dramatic entrance from the upper left. One foot trails out of frame and one peacock-feather wing projects in front of the frame, giving the impression of immediacy and movement. Gabriel’s gracefully looping scroll bears the prayer ‘Ave Maria’ (Hail Mary; based on Luke 1:28 and 42). Meanwhile, God the Father presides in the upper corner and the dove of the Holy Spirit descends. The scroll of musical notation carried by the three angels in the upper border encourages us to imagine divine music accompanying the scene, while the scroll-bearing prophets in the lower margin prefigure this momentous event.

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The Deposition: Add MS 89309, f. 210v

The manuscript formerly was on long-term loan from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark (Loan MS 85/4). Mgr Matthew Dickens, the Vicar General & Chancellor & Trustee of the Archdiocese of Southwark, commented: ‘We are delighted that the British Library has been able to acquire for its permanent collection the Southwark Book of Hours. This is a particularly fine example of illuminated manuscripts of this period and it is right and proper that it should be held in a major national collection, to be enjoyed by the public and to be available for scholarly research. I should like to thank the British Library staff and donors who have made this acquisition possible.’

Dr Kathleen Doyle, the British Library’s Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, said: ‘I am delighted that the Southwark Hours is joining the Library's remarkable collection of illuminated manuscripts, including treasures of French illumination and Books of Hours from across Europe.  The manuscript is an important witness of the Ravenelle Painter’s work, and one of only two that indicates that the he worked for aristocratic female patrons.’ We are grateful to the Friends of the British Library for their assistance in funding this acquisition.

The manuscript is now on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, together with another manuscript (Add MS 35215) and two printed Books of Hours, to allow visitors to compare the similarities and differences between the same text in different media.

 

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 January 2019

Gorgeous manuscripts galore

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One of our favourite online resources is the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. It has recently been updated to include fifteen new manuscripts and lots more images.

The Stavelot Missal

You can already view the enormous 11th-century Stavelot Bible on our Digitised Manuscripts website (Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107). Two more manuscripts from the Benedictine abbey of Stavelot, in the diocese of Liège, have now been added to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

This 13th-century missal is bound in two volumes (Add MS 18031 and Add MS 18032). The litany of saints includes St Remaclus, patron of the abbey, and a notice of the dedication of the monastery ('Dedicatio Stabulensis ecclesie') on the calendar page for June. The manuscript's 14th- or 15th-century additions include a mass for St Poppo of Stavelot and the feast of Thomas Becket, inserted in  the calendar (f. 13v).

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The Crucifixion with Mary and John, from the ‘Stavelot Missal’, volume I: Add MS 18031, f. 18v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here, together with the second volume.

 

A Psalter from Stavelot

This early Psalter with a Latin commentary is one of a group of manuscripts produced at Stavelot around the year 1000 and illuminated in the distinct Mosan style.

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David and Goliath in the Stavelot Psalter: Add MS 18043, f. 64v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Gospels from Tours

Tours was an important centre of Carolingian manuscript production in the 9th century. The style of decoration of this gospel-book is Franco-Saxon, combining elements of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon decoration, including a distinctive combination of orange-red and gold. This framed incipit page includes display capitals in gold on purple grounds.

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Incipit page of the Gospel of Mark: Add MS 11849, f. 72r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

Isidore’s Etymologies

This manuscript of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies was made at Neuvelle-lès-la-Charité in eastern France in the 4th quarter of the 12th century. The decorated page below contains a consanguinity diagram, showing which family members were deemed to be too closely-related to marry by the medieval Church. The entwined foliage with the tendrils held by human figures represents the blood ties between family members, and there are strange hybrid creatures at the three points of the triangle.

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Consanguinity diagram from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Add MS 15603, f. 93r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

Cicero

This 12th-century manuscript, made in the southern Netherlands or northern France, contains Marcus Tullius Cicero’s De inventione, a handbook on how to be a good public speaker. It is followed by the Rhetorica ad Herennium, the most popular work on rhetoric throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These two texts were often copied together and were used to teach rhetoric in a structured and disciplined way.

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Cicero seated holding a scroll reading 'Marci Tulii liber primus incipit': Add MS 16984, f. 3r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Sherborne Cartulary

This collection of royal, papal and episcopal charters contains a number of letters written by Anglo-Saxon kings (Edgar, Æthelred and Cnut). The volume also contains a series of liturgical texts including accounts of the Passion of Christ, with portraits of St Mark and St John.

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St John the Evangelist, from the Sherborne Cartulary: Add MS 46487, f. 52v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

These two Psalters, both produced in the latter part of the 12th century, have a similar layout. The text of the Psalms in the central column is surrounded by a gloss or commentary, and there are large decorated initials marking the beginning of the major Psalms. However, the style of illumination points to different areas of origin: the first in England or northern France, and the second in southern Germany or eastern France.

An English or French Psalter

This elegant Psalter was made in the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century. It begins with a large, illuminated initial that includes pictures of David and of Christ preaching to a group of men.  

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Beatus initial from a Psalter: Add MS 17392, f. 1r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

A glossed Psalter

The gloss in this 12th-century Psalter is attributed to the circle of Anselm of Laon (d. 1117). Added on the last leaf, in contemporary script, is a tract on curing haemorrhoids (f. 196r).

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Decorated initial from a Psalter: Add MS 18298, f. 143v. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

A Psalter of the Use of York

This late 12th- or early 13th-century Psalter was possibly made for the Augustinian abbey of Bourne in the diocese of Lincoln, since additions in the calendar include Abbot Henry of Bourne and Hugh of Lincoln. It seems to have been owned later by a Cistercian monastery, because 15th-century additions to the calendar include the feast of St Bernard of Clairvaux and other saints venerated by that Order. It has large gold and coloured initials at the beginning of major Psalms, many of them with animal heads and bodies entwined in the foliage.

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Zoomorphic initial from a Psalter: Add MS 38819, f. 70r. The whole manuscript can be viewed online here.

 

The Percy Psalter

The 13th-century Percy Psalter is thought to originate from York. It has beautiful illuminated initials, while the borders contain mythical beasts and graphic hunting scenes. Unicorns were believed to be symbols of purity and grace, which only a virgin could capture; in order to hunt one successfully, it first had to be tamed by a young girl before being killed, as shown here. At the top of this page is the pelican biting its breast to revive its young. The initial depicts David pointing to his mouth, showing that he will avoid 'sinning with the tongue' (Psalm 38).

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The beginning of Psalm 38, from the Percy Psalter: Add MS 70000, f. 55r.

 

Old Testament from Genesis to Ruth

This is the first volume of another large Bible (in five volumes), produced in the Meuse valley around 1430. It belonged to the Benedictine abbey of St James, Liège, whose coat of arms and motto (‘CONSTANTER AD ASTRA’) is pasted on the spine. The opening page for Genesis has roundels of the seven days of Creation, marginal figures of angels with scrolls containing quotes from Augustine, and paired pagan and Christian philosophers These include Augustine with his attribute of a heart, Albertus Magnus in discussion with Averroes, and Old Testament figures including Melchisedek.

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The beginning of the Old Testament: Add MS 15254, f. 13r.

 

A religious miscellany

This miscellany of religious tracts, offices, prayers and meditations was compiled between the 13th century and the 15th century. Some of its texts are connected with Ely Priory, such as a metrical epitaph for Alan of Walsingham, prior of Ely (d. c. 1364). It also includes a story of the Virgin teaching a new Latin prayer, Missus est angelus, to a canon named Arnaud. The large puzzle initial below marks the beginning of a prayer to the patron saint of a church.

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Puzzle initial in a miscellany: Add MS 33381, f. 128r.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 November 2018

Coins, swords and urns: British Museum loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, presents an unrivalled chance to see Anglo-Saxon manuscripts alongside some of the most stunning objects from this period. Many of these artefacts have been generously loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum, to whom we are extremely grateful for their support. Their objects help to illuminate the origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the period of Mercian supremacy, and the period of conquest in the 10th and 11th centuries.

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The Loveden Hill Urn: British Museum, BEP 1963, 1001.14

The Loveden Hill Urn, dating from the second half of the 5th century, is one of more than 1,800 urns excavated at this cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire. Uniquely, it bears a runic inscription, which includes what could be a female personal name, SïÞæbæd. This constitutes one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language. You can explore a 3D model of this urn on the Sketchfab website.

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The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum, BEP 1939, 1010.1

This exquisite gold belt buckle, excavated in the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the 1930s, is one of the most recognisable objects in our exhibition. The ship-burial included a wealth of other items including armour and weaponry, as well as a collection of silver bowls and two silver spoons which possibly came from Byzantium. This ship-burial commemorated someone of outstanding wealth and political significance in the early 7th century.

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Kentish disc brooch: British Museum, BEP 1884,1221.4

Another stunning gold item loaned by the British Museum is this 7th century disc brooch discovered at Faversham, Kent, in 1859. It was found in a woman’s grave, and its gold and garnet style bears many similarities to other elaborate brooches discovered in southern England.

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Gold dinar of Offa of Mercia: British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1

The British Museum has also loaned three outstanding coins to the exhibition, which together illustrate the height of Mercian power in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The coin shown above is the gold dinar of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796). This unique coin carries the inscription OFFA REX on one side; on the other is a design based on an Arabic inscription on a coin of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (d. 775). The Arabic inscription translates as ‘there is no God but Allah alone’; the minting of this coin in Offa's name perhaps reflects his wide political reach and the value he placed on international trade.

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Silver penny of Cynethryth of Mercia: British Museum, CM TYS (BMC 60)

This coin was issued in the name of Offa’s wife, Queen Cynethryth (d. 798). It is the only surviving example of a coin issued in the name of an Anglo-Saxon queen.

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Gold mancus of Coenwulf of Mercia: British Museum, CM 2006, 0204.1

This gold coin was issued in the name of Offa’s successor, Coenwulf of Mercia (d. 821). Its design closely mirrors other gold and silver coins from the same period. It may be the earliest gold coin intended to form part of a regular, uniform currency.

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The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

The Fuller Brooch has been dated to the late 9th century on account of its unique design, which reflects the centrality of man’s place in the order of creation. The outer circle features four quadrants, each filled with four smaller circles which alternate between depictions of mankind, animals, birds and plants. In the centre are five figures, which are believed to represent each of the five senses. The central figure holds two floriated stems and stares out with prominent eyes, representing sight, and is surrounded by four figures which represent smell, hearing, touch and taste.

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The Ædwen Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 1011.1

Another British Museum object in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is the Ædwen Brooch, which has been dated to the early 11th century. An inscription in Old English was etched into the outer rim of the reverse: ÆDVǷEN ME AG AGE HYO DRIHTEN / DRIHTEN HINE AǷERIE ÐE ME HIRE ÆTFERIE / BVTON HYO ME SELLE HIRE AGENES ǷILLES ('Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will').

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Silver-gilt fitting with runic inscriptions: British Museum, BEP 1869, 0610.1

A runic inscription is found on this silver-gilt fitting, the shape of which suggests that it may have once been part of a scabbard.

Seax

Seax with runic lettering: British Museum BEP 1857, 0623.1

This large iron knife or seax also has a runic inscription. This includes a runic alphabet and the name Beagnoth, who may have been the original owner or the craftsman who produced the blade.

Sword

Sword with decorated fittings: British Museum, BEP 1887,0209.1

Another fearsome blade loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this magnificent sword, complete with decorated fittings. Although it is extremely rare to find this type of sword in England, they are more common across northern and eastern Europe, suggesting that this sword may have belonged to a Scandinavian warrior.

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Seal-matrix of Ælfric: British Museum, BEP 1832, 0512.2

Seal-matrices were used to make an impression in a wax seal to authenticate a document or to close it. This matrix is made of copper alloy and is inscribed + SIGILLUM ÆLFRIC (‘+ Seal of Ælfric').

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Seal-matrix of Godwine and Godgytha: British Museum, BEP 1881, 0404.1

A second seal-matrix is made from walrus ivory, and is inscribed + SIGILLUM GODWINI MINISTRI (‘+ Seal of Godwine the Thegn’). The matrix was later re-used by a nun, who had her own inscription added on the reverse, reading + SIGILLUM GODGYĐE MONACHE DEO DATE ('+ Seal of Godytha, nun given to God’). Godytha may have been Godwine's wife or daughter. Both of these seal-matrices were high status objects, perhaps issued in connection with the performance of official duties on behalf of the king.

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Blythburgh writing tablet: British Museum, BEP, 1902, 0315.1

Another extraordinary object loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this 8th-century writing tablet, discovered at Blythburgh in Suffolk. Since parchment was relatively expensive to produce, tablets such as these were used when scribes were learning to write, making drafts or taking notes. This tablet is one half of a pair, and the other side would have originally been attached with leather thongs threaded through the two holes in the ling side.

We are extremely grateful to the British Museum for lending these fascinating objects to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. They can be viewed at the British Libraryuntil 19 February 2019.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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24 October 2018

The Utrecht Psalter on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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At the end of the British Library's landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are three incredible and interrelated works of art. The earliest — and the one that sparked an artistic revolution — is the Utrecht Psalter, made in Reims (now northern France) during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840). We are extremely grateful to Utrecht University Library for its generous loan of this beautiful manuscript to our exhibition.

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Psalm 14 from the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 8r

The drawings in the Utrecht Psalter are revolutionary in their approach to illustrating the Psalms. Previously, the Psalms were sometimes ornamented with scenes from the life of King David, either on a few pages or painted inside initials, as in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century.

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Detail of an historiated initial showing King David saving a sheep from a lion: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r 

By contrast, the Utrecht Psalter’s ink drawings illustrate every phrase from the text of the Psalm on a given page. Check out the annotated version produced by Utrecht University to see how each element in the drawing was inspired by a different line in the text. In addition to literally representing the Psalms, these drawings offer visual interpretation and commentary.

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‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 12r

The Utrecht Psalter was hugely influential for the style of its drawings. This manuscript was one of many books that travelled between the Continent and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By AD 1000 it had arrived in Canterbury where a direct copy of it was made, now known as the Harley Psalter, and also currently on display next to the Utrecht Psalter.

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‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 12r

The vivid style of line-drawings in the Utrecht Psalter had a huge impact on early English art beyond the immediate copies of the Psalter. Many manuscripts associated with Canterbury, from calendars to canon tables to archbishops’ handbooks, contain lively drawings that show its influence. Drawing was considered a high-status art form on a par with painting in late 10th- and 11th-century England, and some images mix both styles.

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Psalm 14 from the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 8r

The Utrecht Psalter continued to inspire art at Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. One of these later copies was the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1), which is also displayed alongside the Utrecht and Harley Psalters in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f. 24r

The three Psalters ultimately ended up in different collections. The Harley Psalter was acquired by the earls of Mortimer and Oxford and became part of the Harley collection. The Eadwine Psalter was sent to Cambridge and is now in the Wren Library in Trinity College. In turn, the Utrecht Psalter came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), a noted collector of manuscripts. At the back of the volume, Cotton added some leaves from an 8th-century gospel-book, which seems to have been made at Wearmouth-Jarrow, Bede’s monastery. At some stage, the oldest surviving charter from England was also part of the volume, but it was subsequently removed and is now Cotton MS Augustus II 2.

Cotton loaned the Utrecht Psalter on at least two occasions. James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh (1581–1656), probably borrowed this manuscript around 1625 and described it in his notebook. Later, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel (1585–1646), borrowed seven books from Cotton’s library including ‘an auncient coppie of the Psalms. Literis maiusculis, in Latin, and pictures’.

Cotton

Sir Robert Cotton owned the Utrecht Psalter in the 17th century. In this portrait, commissioned in 1626, he is shown resting his hands upon the Cotton Genesis (courtesy of the Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L., Heanton Satchville, Devon).

Cotton's collection was used by writers who were looking for political arguments and precedents. In 1629, Charles I ordered that Cotton’s library be closed, on the grounds that it included a tract that advocated for absolutist monarchy, and Cotton himself was briefly imprisoned.

Robert Cotton died soon afterwards, in 1631. Meanwhile, Thomas Arundel seems to have taken the Psalter with him to the continent. There, his family lived rather lavishly, and the possessions of his son William Howard, Viscount Stafford (1612–1680), were auctioned twice to pay off debts. Eventually, Willem de Ridder acquired the Utrecht Psalter, and he bequeathed the manuscript to Utrecht Library on his death in 1716.

We are very grateful to Utrecht University for generously loaning this superstar to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, so that it can be displayed alongside the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. You can book tickets to see it here. The manuscripts discussed in this blogpost are also featured in a catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, available in both hardback and paperback from the British Library shop.

 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library

19 October 2018–19 February 2019

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 October 2018

Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms online

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The British Library holds the world’s most important collections of books made or owned in England between the eclipse of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books and documents contain crucial evidence for the development of society, economy, literature, government, art and religion during the transformative period between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Ahead of the Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that over 200 manuscripts made or owned in England before 1100 can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website, along with the surviving single-sheet documents produced before the Norman Conquest. We’ve produced a list of manuscripts digitised as of October 2018 that appear in Helmut Gneuss and Michael Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms. The list is available here as a spreadsheet (this format does not work with all web browsers): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms

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Miniature of David surrounded by musicians and scribes, from the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century with later additions: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

Many of these manuscripts were digitised in 2015 and 2016 in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders. These books and documents demonstrate the range of writing produced by early English speakers, including the oldest intact European book; epic poems; short riddles; mesmerising illuminated Gospel-books; even rough notes on 200 cheeses. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa. 

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Detail of Biblical quotations from the letters of Cyprian, made in North Africa in the 4th century, with annotations added in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around the 8th century: Add MS 40165a, f. 3v

Still more Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are being digitised all the time under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Stay tuned to the #PolonskyPre1200 hashtag on Twitter for the latest updates. 

Other early manuscripts could not be photographed in the traditional way due to historic damage, such as burning and erasures. However, Christina Duffy and the British Library's Conservation Centre have been doing pioneering work with new forms of imaging. Come to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to learn more, and to see some of these manuscripts in person, as well as online. 

 
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